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Raqset el Hawanim – Awalim dance recreation

Updated: Jun 9, 2023

by Giselle Rodríguez. My name is Giselle Rodríguez. I am from Mexico, and I am an oriental dance teacher and historian. I am also a qanun and riq player.

I have always been fascinated with the awalim and the Golden Age of Cairo’s Mohamed Ali Street, where many of them lived back on the day. Based on the research I did to write my book Oriental Dance in Egypt, I am sure the awalim are the heirs of the jawari tradition, who had to flee Cairo’s palaces when khedive Mohamed Ali got rid of the mamluks in 1811. This means the dance of the awalim is the heyday of the Arab court entertainment.

So keen on recreating the dances of the awalim I chose the song “Raqset el hawanim”, which means dance of the ladies. This term has its parallel in Lebanon, where the social dance of women used to be called” raqs al nisaa”.

The composition is believed to be of the late 19th. century, and one of first ones specifically composed for dance. Even though the name of the composer is unknown, it was recorded on the violin by Sami al Shawa accompanied by Mohamed el Kassagbi on the oud in the early 20thcentury. I learned how to play it on the qanun from Dr. George Sawa, who has a PhD in historical Arab music.

As for the costume we got inspiration from two sources mainly: this image of the Street of Cairo catalogue of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago signed by an artist named Charles Graham which, unlike photographs, shows the colors of the dance costume.

And this photograph that shows a woman of the same epoch dressed in ottoman trousers smoking defiantly. I am convinced that despite being refined artists, awalim were also strong women who were able to provide for themselves at a time where women were less independent than men in general.

As for the zills, many photographs of dancers of the 19th. century and early 20th. century show them with sagat.

Being a musician and a percussionist for several years in an Arab orchestra gave me a different understanding on how to play this instrument. Even though normally dancers play a basic triplet or the rhythm, sagat can also accompany the melody in certain portions of the song, and that is the technique we used for our project. And fortunately, we felt very honored with the feedback received from Dr. Sawa himself.

We also included a shamadan as we know it was used by awalim, as shown in this illustration of the 1900 exhibition in Paris printed in the number 67 of the Magazine “Iris” published in Barcelona on August 18, 1900.

The final result of the project was this choreography that I have danced with my troupe Ahlam in venues such as Mexico City’s Palacio de Minería on occasion of the exhibition of recreations of Egyptian master pieces, at local dance festivals such as Festival Morelos Danza and also at museums such as Casa de la Cultura Postal and private venues such as Foro Artvent.

My dance troupe Ahlam Ahlam música árabe Instagram – My dance school Escuela de danza árabe My book Danza Oriental en Egipto YouTube

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